For a Friend, Answering the Call of the Wild

new york timesIT began with a call. My best friend, Liberty, wanted to celebrate her 50th birthday by tracking wolves in the wild. I thought to myself, ''Isn't this precisely what the Discovery Channel is for?'' Then, she added, she would like me and seven other women to join her.

Of course, I couldn't say no. It was like the distributive law of friendship: She loves wolves + I love her = I love wolves.

Standing in the dressing room at the Patagonia store, I reread the endless list of cold-weather items recommended by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, the environmental group that arranged our Yellowstone trip. Never mind that in Los Angeles it was 85 degrees, perfect beach weather. The sales clerk advised me to buy glove liners, Capilene underwear (I heard the word ''wicking'' a lot in the next few days), and socks. At the cash register, the bill totaled more than $200. For underwear? This, too, came under the heading of friendship.

Much to my delight, I discovered that my other friends on the trip were equally neurotic about foul-weather gear. In fact, one of them had visited the North Face store in Beverly Hills so often that the sales force crowned her Customer of the Week. Another bought hand and foot warmers at A-16 and sent me daily single-digit weather reports. I e-mailed everyone new lyrics to ''Leader of the Pack'' featuring only moderately snide references to Liberty.

I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to catch two flights to Jackson, Wyo. In the spirit of the trip, I sported a cowboy hat. On the ride from the airport, my friends shrieked with excitement over a giant herd of elk. I wondered if my contact lenses were smudged because all I could see were little brown dots that resembled unmoving rocks on the hillside. Riding in a van to Montana -- the most direct route, through Yellowstone, was closed in November -- for more than six hours, my fellow wolfies grew restless, though we were heartened to find a spot on the map called Bitch River.

It was only 3:30, but already we resembled an episode from ''Absolutely Fabulous,'' mixing cocktails in the back seat. At our destination in Cooke City, Mont. (population 85), a bartender served up Moose Drool beer while outside snow fell and a full moon rose.

Just after dawn, we huddled on the roadside at the northern end of Yellowstone, shivering and peering through high-powered scopes. There they were! The Druid Pack. Velvety black. Gray flannel fur. Tails wagging. The facts from Franz Camenzind, a wildlife biologist with us for the trip, came into focus: Wolves had been exterminated by the United States government and were no longer in Yellowstone until 1995, when they were reintroduced. At first, there were 14 from Canada. Now, they numbered more than 200 and some had radio collars so researchers could track them -- the ''last missing link'' in the ecosystem, as Mr. Camenzind put it.

Behind binoculars, my friends said: ''Look at their butts -- they're so cute.'' ''Oh my God, they're playing!'' ''These tails are such a turn on!'' Rick McIntyre, a wolf aficionado whom we met in Yellowstone, told the story of the Cinderella wolf, who escaped the torment of her nasty sister when the other females attacked the sister. Cinderella raised her sister's pups as her own. Now, she's the alpha female, No. 42, and I could see her leading the pack in the snow at their rendezvous site a mile away.

Suddenly, dead silence -- a first from this gaggle of girlfriends. It ended with a call, the howl of the Druids. No one moved. I could not believe my good luck, because this was perhaps the most enchanting sound I had ever heard. Sorrowful. Soulful. Wild. Deep harmonies. A jazz chorus. I turned to Liberty, whose silver blue eyes welled up. ''It's so holy,'' she said. The entire valley was a cathedral of sound. By dinner, I was called No. 91. She was No. 23. We had become the Bitch River Pack: friends for life.


published in The New York Times

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